Ever since the beginning of the trip we had been talking about the Karen refugees living in Thailand. In Minnesota I had stayed with an extended family of seven resettled Karen refugees that had been in the United States anywhere from fourteen years to six months. They shared their stories of life before they were displaced, getting to the refugee camps in Thailand, and life at the camps. Most still had friends or family in the camps or in Burma and it is often impossible to know how they are doing or where they are. Well I had heard about some of the cramped living spaces, declining food rations, and overall difficult situation in the refugee camps, but now I was experiencing it firsthand. Black plastic tarps scatter the skyline; they are the only material that can be used for roofs making it unbearably hot. Buildings are only three feet apart from each other making conditions very cramped and uncomfortable. These are a couple of the regulations put in place by the Thai government to make life “uncomfortable” for refugees. After all these are “temporary living conditions” although this camp has been around for almost ten years and others have been around for more than double.
Later in the day we found ourselves being taken up to the camp office to meet the camp leaders and were fed lunch in the camp office area which sat on the side of the hill. I quickly realized that the food that we were being given was a bit more than the rations of rice the camp is given. They made a huge variety of all sorts of extravagant Karen and Burmese dishes just for us. This would have taken someone sneaking out of the camp, getting money, buying all the food, and then returning with everything… And then they are giving all of it to us? I really had to just step back and examine things for a minute. I guess in most cultures we want our guests to feel welcome and we offer food and drink to them. Maybe I was being a bit pretentious to think how it’s one thing to offer what you have when you have plenty to spare and another to give of what you have when there is little to spare.
Our last stop of the day was way up on the side of the hill in the corner of the camp to a boarding school. Here fifty two children lived and went to school. All of these kids had it rough, but were all there because they had family that wanted the best for them and their future. Some of these kids had not heard from or seen their parents in years. Their parents had stayed back, not wanting to leave their homeland and to “give up” by becoming a refugee. We were promptly brought up to the front and asked to introduce ourselves. They had a song prepared for us that they sung in English, Give Thanks. It was one I had heard before, but never really thought much of it. When the kids started singing an incredible wall of noise came forth like I had never heard before.
Give thanks with a grateful heart
Give thanks unto the Holy One
Give thanks because He’s given Jesus Christ, His Son
And now let the weak say, I am strong
Let the poor say, I am rich
Because of what the Lord has done for us
Here are children that it seems are in a hard situation, being refugees in another country without their families, and still singing give thanks because of what the Lord has done for us! It was a powerful moment and something I’ll always remember.